Truthiness. the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year in 2005 (beating podcast and sudoku along the way), and dictionary publisher Meriam-Webster followed suit in 2006. But, in the circles I move in, it is a word that is as rare as a workless Sunday. Which is strange given that I move in education circles a fair amount: the word seems more than a cosy fit in so many of the experiences and conversations I’ve had.
The word ‘truthiness’ was coined (or rather: “a word I pulled right out of my keister”) by the American satirist Stephen Colbert in the pilot episode of his popular daily show The Colbert Report in 2005. It is variously defined as: ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’; ‘the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like’; and ‘the quality of being considered to be true because of what the believer wishes or feels, regardless of the facts’. You get the idea. Colbert himself used the words, “truth that comes from the gut, not books” in his mocking condemnation of the cult of truthiness in politics.
Our world of education is littered with such truthiness. Pithy, seemingly aphoristic sayings or rhetorical turns are tossed across social networks daily and retweeted with revelatory agreement. Just yesterday, two such soundbites made their way into my timeline. The thing about them is that, unthinkingly, they look and sound like truth. But if you take a second to question them, all you are left with is truthiness.
Take this one, for example. I’ve seen this tweeted many times before:
Just looking at it, I can feel the breeze from a wave of nods of pleasant agreement. But what if I did this:
I mean to me, this makes more sense. I won’t explain it here, but when I hinted at it, others (mainly people called ‘Robert’) agreed too:
But I think this is open to discussion. My point is that the original graphic doesn’t represent truth, only truthiness.
The problem is with these things is that the more they are repeated and retweeted, the more they seem to be believed and held up as truths (see: the daft exams/animals climbing a tree cartoon). There is a Chinese proverb that goes: ‘Three men make a tiger’. This comes from a story in which a king is being asked by an aide if he would believe a citizen’s report that he’d seen a tiger roaming the markets. The king said no, of course he wouldn’t. The aide then asked what if two people reported they’d seen a tiger in the busy markets and the king said he’d begin to wonder. When asked his reaction if three people reported seeing the tiger, the king said he would believe it. The aide then said that the notion of a tiger in a crowded market is absurd and that the king would believe something so absurd just because it was repeated often enough. Three men make a tiger. So when we repeat these things so heavily reliant on truthiness, they seem to slip effortlessly into truth for many of us.
The second ‘truthy’ thing I saw yesterday was this:
I mean, it is very sensible to teach pupils how to respond when they are not successful, of course. I think there is a lot to be taught in schools with regards to failure. But of the two things, wouldn’t teaching people to be successful be better? If that is the dichotomy on offer (and it seems it is set up as either/or), surely the first option is more valuable? Even the inevitability of ‘when’ in the latter statement is a little defeatist, isn’t it? Again, this is up for discussion. But the fervent agreement with which this was retweeted masked the truthiness of it all with an accepted truth. A truth that really isn’t solid.
It is really important that we all take a cautious, critical approach in order to spot the truthiness in these pithy factoids.
Believe me, the truthiness is out there. It’s bloody everywhere.